Four months removed from his UFC release and just days away from headlining Eagle FC 46, Kevin Lee is admittedly still conflicted about how the relationship with his former promotion ended.
It was a stunning turn of events considering the 29-year-old former interim lightweight title challenger had long been touted as a future champion with highlight reel performances over the likes of Edson Barboza, Michael Chiesa and Gregor Gillespie.
Adding even more confusion to the situation was how the UFC waited until two months after his last loss to actually drop him from the roster. It’s a move Lee struggles to comprehend but he’s also adamant that there’s no animosity towards the UFC after the fact.
“There is still a bit of confusion to me a little bit about what exactly is going on [with my release],” Lee told The Fighter vs. The Writer. “There’s a lot of politics that goes into this s***. So that part, it’s still some figuring out that needs to be done but as far as ill will, there’s zero.
“There’s zero ill will on my end towards the UFC. I feel like if anything, it came at the right time. It may not have been the time that I saw or would have wanted but ultimately, it just came at the right time.”
The bitter feelings after first receiving the news eventually transitioned to Lee learning to appreciate the career he built under the UFC banner.
While the Detroit native always understood his value in the sport, Lee was happy to know that his talent hadn’t gone unnoticed after he started fielding offers from other promotions before signing a lucrative four-fight deal with Eagle FC — the promotion owned and operated by former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“I got the attention of the entire world by my time in there,” Lee said. “It’s so much s*** I can do off of that. There’s no ill will. They taught me a lot. I had a lot of good experiences. I had 18 fights. That’s not something that they can ever take away from me. When I walk into a restaurant or I walk into the mall or I walk anywhere, I’m built different now. I move different and I feel like people can tell that.
“I’ve had these experiences that you wouldn’t get anywhere else and a lot of other guys in the UFC wouldn’t get half of the experience that I even got. There’s no ill will.”
Lee was only seven fights into his career when he first signed with the UFC and that’s where he spent the next seven years in his career.
As soon as he hit the free-agent market, he learned rather quickly that there are definitely a lot of opportunities available outside the UFC and that helped to give him some important perspective.
“We can’t take away too much from the UFC - they do a great job of promoting but it kind of sucks being famous but not being rich,” Lee explained. “That’s not really the goal. This is America. We value the dollar more than anything. Be rich first and then be famous.
“When I’m giving advice to young fighters on what they should do and where they should be, I tell them the UFC ain’t top dog no more. Maybe in terms of promotion but if you just want people to know who you are, you can do a whole lot more s*** that this. If you’re in it to provide for your family and do some other stuff, there’s some more options out there.”
While overall terms of his deal with Eagle FC haven’t been disclosed, Lee revealed that he’s earning a lot more money now than he ever did with the UFC and that also comes along with a less restrictive contract.
“It’s twice as good as what the UFC is treating me,” Lee said about his pay in Eagle FC. “It’s nice. I cannot complain.
“It’s the language of the contract that’s a whole lot better and me as a person, me as a brand, I’m always going to be me, 10, 20, 30 years from now. So it’s kind of nice to own some of those rights.”
Lee argues that fighters seeing these kinds of opportunities will only help the sport evolve over time because competition fuels the open market when it comes to overall pay.
He concedes that the UFC is still the biggest show where the highest profile stars can make the most money in all of mixed martial arts but not everybody is making Conor McGregor money.
“The more we make as fighters, the bigger the sport gets,” Lee said. “You talk about these young kids and if I’m a 12-year-old athletic kid, am I going to go to football where I can make $5 or $6 million contract or am I going to go to the UFC and make $50,000 a year or $100,000 at best a year.
“I feel like the more that we get these Floyd Mayweather level pay-per-views and bigger payouts, will get the sport even bigger.”
With a roster nearing 700 fighters, the UFC can also boast the deepest divisions in the sport but Lee also knows there’s plenty of talent in other organizations.
In his Eagle FC debut this Friday, Lee will take on a bona fide legend in The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez and he’s confident there will be no shortage of big-name opponents in the future as well.
“The competition is always going to be there,” Lee said. “The best fighters ain’t necessarily in the UFC. I even see that working down here at Sanford [MMA]. There’s a lot of top level 170, 155 pounders that you haven’t heard of that aren’t in the UFC.
“This is a global sport. There’s people in Russia and Japan and Australia and all these places where you can only hear about so many guys but there’s so much competition out there.”
Outside of money and the push that Eagle FC is giving him as a marquee addition to the promotion, Lee is also excited about the chance to compete in what he considers his natural weight class.
For several years, Lee wanted the UFC to add a 165-pound division — a move several other top stars have requested as well — but Dana White always shot it down.
Now he’ll actually compete as a super lightweight in Eagle FC with designs on becoming champion in his new fighting home sooner rather than later.
“The biggest thing for me, I’m going to be a world champion at 165 pounds,” Lee said. “I will be the best man in the world for anybody who’s willing to weigh in at 165 pounds. Regardless who that’s against, that’s what it is.”